The yarkan where I shop-- click to see a larger version and read the prices :)
In many random ways, Israel is "greener" than the US-- for example, we heat our water using solar panels in the summer and generally drive fuel-efficient cars. But one of the biggest ways in which we're green comes is found in the little shops whose name sounds like the word "green" ("yarok"): we get almost all of our fruits and veggies locally, while the US flies unripe produce in from, say, Chile so that everyone can eat tasteless tomatoes ALL YEAR ROUND! Score! This means a few things:
1. If you want to get a peach or a slice of watermelon in February, you're out of luck. (According to the owner of my yarkan, the one veggie that comes from overseas-- and therefore is available out of season-- is the white garlic from China, which isn't nearly as flavorful as the purple garlic from Israel.)
2. Our fruits and vegetables actually have taste. I honestly thought cucumbers tasted like water (sometimes bitter water) before I came to Israel. Think again!
To shop for vegetables like an Israeli, go to the shuk or shop at any one of your neighborhood yarkans... we have at least three within two blocks of our apartment. (The word "yarkan" probably comes from the word for vegetables, "yerakot.")
Here are some tips for shopping at a yarkan like a native:
- Everything is always on sale. In the Yarkan where I shop, all prices are written on scraps of cardboard boxes, and about half of the prices are accompanied by the word מבצע-- SALE! So, er, don't trust the signs. (Closely related is the idea that everything is seedless. Don't believe everything your yarkan guy says.) Instead...
- Know what's a good price. A typical price for basics like tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, oranges, eggplant or potatoes is 2.99 shekels a kilo, which even with the weak dollar is equivalent to about 35 cents a pound. I've bought tomatoes at the yarkan for as little as 99 agurot a kilo, which is about 11 cents a pound. (Don't forget-- first divide by 3.8 or so for the exchange rate into dollars, then divide by 2.2 to convert kilos to pounds!) A good price for, say, persimmons, kiwi fruit, pears, apricots or avocados is about 6 shekels a kilo (equivalent to about 70 cents a pound). I buy about three canvas bags full of fruits and veggies every week and usually spend about 50-70 shekels.
- Don't always buy the cheapest tomatoes. The fruits and veggies sitting out front on a really good sale sometimes have sat there for a while. Unless you plan to eat the tomatoes right away, you might want to splurge on the slightly more expensive tomatoes that are sitting inside in the shade.
- Onions and celery grow in dirt. You may need to wash them when you get home. Live with it. Sometimes shopping at a yarkan takes you, er, a little closer to the earth than shopping in an American grocery store does. That's because American veggies get power washed and quite possibly didn't stay in the ground long enough to get dirty.
- Don't squeeze the peaches. Sometimes the owners of the yarkan get a little, shall we say, possessive? It's only natural. After all, they own the yarkan and essentially own all the fruits and veggies on their shelves. Which means that a hypothetical brand-new olah trying to shop for peaches during one of her first days in Israel might get yelled at for pinching peaches before she chooses to buy them. At which point, hypothetically, she might get offended and shop at a different yarkan for a few months until she stops thinking like an American and realizes that her thumb print just might not belong on someone else's peach.
- Save bags by putting all the veggies at one price together in one bag. The owner of my yarkan weighs veggies and types in their prices by hand-- no code stickers (or stickers of any kind, actually) on my fruit. So he doesn't care if I mix my tomatoes and potatoes so long as they're all the same price. Even so, you'll end up with a ton of the little colored yarkan sakiot nylon, but you do what you can.
- Bring cash. Again, the yarkan isn't big on careful record keeping or fancy money transactions. It doesn't contain any kind of bar-code scanner and it certainly doesn't accept credit cards.
- Ask the owner what weird-looking fruit and veggies are. He will laugh at you for not knowing the identity of the giant sooty radish, but you'll get over it. Then do a web search when you get home to figure out how to eat the food. Did you know that the yummiest way to eat a ripe persimmon is to cut off the top and scoop out the insides like pudding?
- Let the owner pick out your watermelon half. He prides himself on getting you the sweetest piece, and he'll cut it open for you on the spot. Israelis rarely seem to buy a whole watermelon.
- Never buy your veggies in the supermarket (or, in Hebrew, the "Sooper"). The vegetables there are overpriced, unripe (and possibly rotten), flavorless, and generally fairly equivalent to what you might get in the US.
*Correction: people tell me that a "yarkan" is technically the person selling the veggies, not the store. So for the record, I've never actually been, er, "in" our local yarkan.